In 1919, the Dowager Empress of Russia, Maria Feodorovna, was evacuated on a British ship from the Crimea peninsula. A new book tells the story of this evacuation based on the diaries of passengers and crew on that ship. The book captures one of those time capsules created by extraordinary events and presents them in a microcosm contained on one ship.
Frances Welch’s The Russian Court At Sea: The Voyage Of HMS Marlborough, April 1919 was published by Short Books. It tells the story of the evacuation of Maria Feodorovna and members of the Romanov family from the Crimea. Welch’s sources of information are the diaries of passengers and crew members. They have survived time and the author carefully brings them together to paint a memorable time piece.
Maria Feodorovna was the widow of Tsar Alexander III of Russia and mother of Tsar Nicolas II. Born Princess Dagmar of Denmark, she was a daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark. She had converted to the Russian Orthodox faith prior to her marriage to Alexander; on that occasion she also adopted the name of Maria Feodorovna. She was the sister of King Frederic VIII of Denmark, King George I of Greece, Queen Alexandra of the United Kingdom, and titular Queen Thyra of Hanover, Duchess of Cumberland and Teviotdale, titular Duchess of Brunswick and Luneburg.
While Welch centered her book on the Dowager Empress, her main source of information was the diary of Francis Pridham; he was first lieutenant on the Marlborough and was handed the unenviable task of purser of a ship not equipped for Imperial guests; a military vessel not equipped for any guests in fact. Suddenly, his ship was awash with Imperial Highnesses and Grand Dukes and Duchesses by the score, and he had somehow to sort out the mess. He must have spent sleepless hours over it to be able to keep up a diary.
The task was certainly not made any easier by the collected eminence thrust upon him. The Dowager Empress had left Russia under protest and on condition that loyal subjects would be evacuated at the same time with her. It was therefore a whole flotilla of ships that left the port of Yalta in the wake of the Marlborough. And on that vessel, the collected Romanov family members might have been related, but they were certainly not friends.
Maria Feodorovna had upheld a fierce, acrimonious, and quite petty dispute with her neighbor on the Crimea: Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaevich Romanov. Now they had to travel on the same ship, together with Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov who had been heavily implicated in Rasputin’s murder. All these people and the many on the other ships owed their life only to the Dowager Empress and her ultimatum. The circumstances just emphasized all the petty squabbles in the family and that in limited space.
The command to rescue the Empress had come from King George V; but the real instigator of the mission had been his mother Queen Alexandra who wanted her sister rescued at all cost. King George wouldn't have moved a finger without that. He had thrown his cousin, Tsar Nicolas II, to the mob rather than help him or his family; he was afraid that anti-monarchical feelings could swap over into Britain. Cravenly, he later tried to blame Prime Minister Lloyd George for his decision.
The book recounts the sea journey from Yalta to Malta; at the end of which, the reader has gained a detailed picture of a highly dysfunctional family. I also ended up admiring the stubborn, biased, brave, and fiercely patriotic Dowager Empress with her unshakable belief that the accounts of the murder of Tsar Nicolas II and his family were untrue. Fittingly, her remains were transferred from Denmark to Moscow in 2006 for reburial in the Imperial crypt.